31 Days to Scare ~ Welcome to the Blumhouse – Madres & The Manor

We’ve come to the end of another year of Welcome to the Blumhouse and I’m a little sad it’s already done. I feel like we just got started! With five Fridays in October leading up to Halloween, I wish they had staggered the release of these four movies and not clumped them together…it would only spread the wealth in what turned out to be a much stronger year than 2020. (Click the title for reviews of Black Box, Nocturne, The Lie, and Evil Eye) I sort of understand why Blumhouse would want to keep Friday, October 15th clear…it’s when their sequel to the 2018 Halloween arrives but why not just skip that week? In any event, this final push has the two best releases and while I felt overall the four films were stronger than last year, the two below are the ones you should consider first with the slight edge going to The Manor for getting the job done.

The Facts:

Synopsis: Expecting their first child, a Mexican-American couple move to a migrant farming community in 1970’s California where strange symptoms and terrifying visions threaten their new family.

Stars: Ariana Guerra, Tenoch Huerta, Elpidia Carrillo, Kerry Cahill, Jennifer Patino, Rachel Whitman Groves, Ashleigh Lewis

Director: Ryan Zaragoza

Rated: NR

Running Length: 84 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: If the third time is truly the charm, then Madres should be the star attraction in this cycle of Welcome to the Blumhouse.  And y’know what?  From the looks of it so far (at the time of this writing, I hadn’t yet seen the fourth entry, The Manor) it most definitely is.  While last week held the elders with an attitude fighting against a demon battling them through gameplay in Bingo Hell and a New Orleans teen staking vampires in her recovering community in Black as Night, I had a feeling this second and final week would hold the more prestigious edge just by the look of the marketing materials.  Continuing to raise the bar like its previous week predecessors, Madres embraces the mission to highlight underrepresented voices in minority communities and crafts a throwback bit of paranoid domestic horror which aims more for the heart and head than just the gut.

Set in 1977, Mario Miscione and Marcella Ochoa’s screenplay is low-key and takes its time to slowly introduce both the characters and the creeping menace into their lives as a young couple moves from the big city to a small farming community in California.  In the city, their lives were cramped and futures not totally clear but with the move there is a chance to own a larger home to start a family and truly build a life, embracing what was then celebrated as the American Dream.  Diana (Ariana Guerra) and Beto (Tenoch Huerta, The Forever Purge) are already ahead of the game in the family department, with Diana far along in her pregnancy and looking forward to giving birth within the next few months.

Not long after they arrive, the warning signs start to pop up that they’re living in a house with secrets and the history of the previous tenant isn’t something the townspeople are eager to discuss.  They have their own problems anyway, with several illnesses being reported supposedly linked to a curse that has haunted the area from a woman with a soul that is not at rest.  Of course, it’s the same woman that wants to reach out to Diana but…why?  That’s the mystery Diana must solve, all while trying to bridge the gap between her culture and learning her husband’s.  While he has immigrated directly from Mexico and speaks the language, she grew up in a family that believed in assimilating as a way of protection.

Miscione and Ochoa work with director Ryan Zaragoza to give the film a distinct period setting, and Zaragoza taps the production side to keep everything appropriate for that era but also timeless as well.  The strange things that happen (this was inspired by true events) could still happen now and while there are ghostly goings on that tingle your spine, Zaragoza seems interested in making your moral conscience itch more than sending a shiver through your bones.  That can often be scary in and of itself, even during the later moments when Madres gives way to more conventional plot mechanics.  Up until then, though, there’s a ship-shape film going on with taut storytelling and performances that are far better than we’ve been accustomed to in what could be considered a B-Movie.  Guerra is the standout star and for good reason.  With charisma and chemistry with the equally charming Huerta, they make a dynamic duo, bonding together as a team to figure out what’s going on around them.  No Rosemary’s Baby like double crosses going on here…though there is plenty gaslighting going on, I’m just not saying who’s zoomin’ whom.

While watching these movies I also can’t help but wonder if Blumhouse is auditioning directors for bigger projects and Zaragoza is far and away the strongest candidate so far to be given a larger budget and production to work on.  On paper, Madres might not have had quite the impact it has when you see it up on its feet and it’s a tribute to Zaragoza assembling the right team in front of and behind the camera that it delivers the goods and then some. Carrying the horror of the film even further, the dark coda brings reality in, leaving you with a takeaway meant to gnaw at your nerves more than anything you’ve seen so far.

The Facts:

Synopsis: After suffering a stroke, Judith moves into a historic nursing home, where she begins to suspect something supernatural is preying on the residents.

Stars: Barbara Hershey, Bruce Davison, Nicholas Alexander, Stacey Travis, Fran Bennett, Katie A. Keane,  Jill Larson

Director: Axelle Carolyn

Rated: NR

Running Length: 81 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Whelp, I guess I’m all about the oft-used phrases today because Welcome to the Blumhouse saved the best for last, at least in the order that I was given to watch them.  The Manor is the fourth and final entry of the 2021 titles and not only is it the one that has the most polish (in a far above average crop to begin with) but the acting is top-notch with plot and pacing also working well in its favor.  Like the rest of the movies released under the banner up until now, it’s just under the mark of what would be considered something that would be released theatrically but is perfect for a direct to streaming event of this nature.  While it doesn’t confront its underlying topics (ageism, families abandoning their loved ones into the care of others) as fervently as the others, it aims for more of an entertaining balance of real-life horror with the things that go bump in the night.

Recently celebrating her 70th birthday, former dancer and widow Judith (Oscar-nominee Barbara Hershey, Insidious) suffers a stroke and, not wanting to burden her own widowed daughter and teenage grandson who she lives with, makes the decision to enter a nursing home.  Some viewer adjustment is required at the outset to conceptualize how a then-nearly 70-year-old can drop everything in her life to care for her daughter but when the roles are reversed the child (Katie A. Keane) doesn’t seem equipped to help in the same way.  However, it is what it is and Judith doesn’t wish to add more stress to anyone’s life and makes up her own mind, something we can see she doesn’t have any trouble doing being a headstrong and independent woman that apparently had a wild child streak in her youth.

It’s an adjustment at the home.  No cell phones, restricted access to outdoors without being accompanied by a staff, restraint at night to those that refuse to stay in their beds, regular sedation if you can’t go through the night without incident.  She’s cheered up by sunny trio of residents Trish (Jill Larson, The Taking of Deborah Logan), Ruth (Fran Bennett, The Doctor), and Roland (Bruce Davison, Insidious: The Last Key) who feel, like her, that staying young at heart is what will keep you alive longer. The good spirit boost doesn’t last long because Judith starts to see a frightening figure at night creeping around the manor and when people start to die, she fears she’s next.  Or is it all in her head, part of the growing confusion of dementia? Is she merely fearing the inevitable and conjuring a portent of the specter of death, much like the black cat that roams the halls and is believed to be a predictor of who will be the next to die?

Writer/director Axelle Carolyn (Tales of Halloween) has had an interesting career up until this point.  Beginning as a journalist before getting into the film industry as a sometime actress and then moving behind the camera, she was married to flash in the pan horror director Neil Marshall.  Now making her own name for herself, she’s written and directed this short but (bitter)sweet story that’s as much about getting older and cast aside as it is about what may be preying on the elders at a retirement home.  It’s the best kind of paranoid horror film in that it drops teeny clues along the way, blink and you miss them hints at the direction you should be considering.  It suggests thought was put into each character (down to minor ones) and that all were integral to the solution that arrives. 

Playing her first lead in a film in nearly two decades, Hershey is brilliantly cast as the still-vibrant woman knowing she’s not crazy and having to defend her sanity to people in her life that should be her advocates not her adversaries.  It’s frustrating to watch the way the nursing home staff and medical personnel speak to her, like she’s a child.  People in this confused state, which they sometimes are, don’t need to be harangued or snapped at, they need care and understanding, and Hershey’s take on the role only gets us more on her side the further we get.  It’s also nice that Carolyn doesn’t lean too far into the ‘unreliable narrator’ trope for Judith…we see what she sees so there’s little doubt as to what’s going on.  I also liked her trio of allies that give her the lay of the land and keep her spirits high and Ciera Payton (Oldboy) as a friendly nurse makes for another strong supporting player.  Judith’s daughter and grandson are middling, but only because both are so aggravatingly inert in their efforts to help their relative, especially Keane’s character who essentially gets told by a suspicious doctor at the manor, “Don’t believe your mother or let her leave her.” and then just refuses to listen to anything she says.

At 81 minutes, you’d think The Manor would miss something critical as it tries to jet to the action, but it doesn’t.  Surprisingly, it nimbly gets on its feet and keeps moving at an easy clip without dragging right until the end.  That doesn’t allow viewers a chance to get too far ahead of what’s to come, creating a solid package.  It’s sparse on jump scares but has a few creepy visuals that are effective in rattling your bones at just the right frequency.  With taut pacing and tight acting, The Manor and Madres should be the blueprints of Welcome to the Blumhouse films in the future, and I do hope they come back next October with more.

31 Days to Scare ~ Welcome to the Blumhouse – Bingo Hell & Black as Night

1

It’s nice to see Blumhouse TV went ahead with another round of Welcome to the Blumhouse, a quartet of spooky films released in October from underrepresented voices.  The films might not be quite the right fit for a theatrical run with the typical Blumhouse advertising push but still there’s something there that make them a nice match for a streaming release under this new banner.  Last year the films (The Lie, Black Box, Evil Eye, Nocturne) felt a little slapped together, like they were picked to fill a slate quickly and this resulted in an unevenness in tone and return on investment of time spent.  This time around, based on the first two entries the quality is higher as is the overall sense of purpose in alignment with the mission Welcome to the Blumhouse is promoting.  While not outright scary, these first two were nice ways to ease into October after a sleepy September.  Let’s enter the Blumhouse and see what they have in store for us in 2021!

The Facts:

Synopsis: In the Barrio of Oak Springs live a strong and stubborn group of elderly friends who refuse to be gentrified. Their leader, Lupita, keeps them together as a community, a family. But little did they know, their beloved Bingo hall is about to be sold to a much more powerful force than money itself.

Stars: Adriana Barraza, Richard Brake, L. Scott Caldwell, Joshua Caleb Johnson, Bertila Damas, Clayton Landey, David Jensen, Grover Coulson, Kelly Murtagh

Director: Gigi Saúl Guerrero

Rated: NR

Running Length: 85 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  If you’ve seen the trailer that Amazon released for Bingo Hell, you may have had the same reaction that I did when I first saw it…the urge to run the other way.  A headache-inducing edit matched with a droning voiceover of creepy lead Richard Brake’s Mr. Big character just had me dreading seeing this tale of terror involving a neighborhood being appalled , then lured in, by a garish new bingo hall offering phenomenal cash prizes…with a twist.  Well, clearly someone on the marketing side either didn’t know enough about the movie or just didn’t care because they sold Bingo Hell quite short as it features several memorable performances and is by and large a skillfully made effort from director Gigi Saúl Guerrero.

Everyone that has lived in a neighborhood for a long time has a woman like Lupita (Adriana Barraza, Drag Me to Hell) living a few houses down.  Traditional, likes to keep her friends close and enemies as far away from her front lawn as possible, she doesn’t care for the changes that have happened to the Oak Springs community she has called home.  Family-owned stores are closing and being replaced by hip new places to shop and so Lupita surrounds herself with her friends and patronizes their places of business, like the the beauty salon owned by Yolanda (Bertila Damas) or Clarence’s (Grover Coulson, A Ghost Story) auto shop.  She’s in for a shock when Mario (David Jensen, Midnight Special) up and sells the local bingo parlor to mysterious Mr. Big (Brake, Batman Begins) and overnight it becomes a garish, neon-colored nightmare.  Soon it creates bad blood and bloodshed between the once-friendly neighbors who are now competing for the ever-growing cash prizes being doled out nightly.

There’s a little bit of Stephen’s King’s Needful Things going on in the script from Guerrero, Perry Blackshear, and Shane McKenzie but I wouldn’t draw too many parallels between that and Bingo Hell.  The story here is far more about Lupita and, to some extent, her friend Dolores (L. Scott Caldwell, Concussion), letting go of their tight grip on the past to fully live in the present than any complex dance with the devil.  That’s not to say Brake doesn’t get the opportunity to enact some ghoulish bits of magic and gnash his nasty chompers around, there’s a great sequence following Raquel, (Kelly Murtaugh, When I Consume You) the tragic daughter-in-law of Dolores, as she wins big but loses large in short order.

I sincerely hope people don’t watch the preview for this and skip it because it’s quite good and Oscar-nominee Barraza is absolutely the fire that fuels the movie from the beginning. All the main actors are “of a certain age” and Barraza leads the charge with a determined rage that feels thoughtful, important, and relatable.  I wouldn’t say the performance makes the ENTIRE movie but it’s darn close, especially at the times it segues into the less interesting secondary plot involving Dolores’ grandson being tempted to a life of crime.  This feels like its lifted from a less interesting film and takes us away from our elders too often.  It’s Barraza’s show and when she’s front and center, delivering one of her last lines in a fit of rage…that’s when you stand and shout BINGO!

The Facts:

Synopsis: A teenage girl with self-esteem issues finds confidence in the most unlikely way, by spending her summer battling vampires that prey on New Orleans’ disenfranchised with the help of her best friend, the boy she’s always pined for, and a peculiar rich girl.

Stars: Asjha Cooper, Fabrizio Guido, Craig Tate, Keith David, Mason Beauchamp, Abbie Gayle, Frankie Smith

Director: Maritte Lee Go

Rated: NR

Running Length: 87 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: I’m a sucker (pun intended) for any kind of vampire film so writer Sherman Payne’s New Orleans set tale Black as Night began already a few points ahead in my book.  What struck me from the start is how naturalistic a look and feel the entire movie had and much of that credit goes to director Maritte Lee Go (Phobias) clearly not wanting to make this another urban tale with a supernatural twist.  People behave like people, not like how the media has portrayed them up until now.  Even the mother of our brave lead, a drug addict, isn’t outfitted with disintegrating teeth and grainy skin, frothing at the mouth as she begs her daughter for money as the film begins.

This important level setting at the start of Black as Night helps prepare the audience for the creature feature elements that develop after 15-year-old Shawna (Asjha Cooper, Everybody Wants Some!!) is attacked by a pack of homeless vampires on the way home from a house party in her neighborhood.  Someone has been preying on the disenfranchised that roam the city streets in a New Orleans that continues to recover from Hurricaine Katrina.  Turning once benign homeless into hungry vamps, whomever is responsible appears to have an agenda targeted at, of all things, social justice reform.  That means it’s up to Shawna and her crew comprised of gay best friend Pedro (Fabrizio Guido, World War Z), suburban white girl Grania (Abbie Gayle, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back) with a wealth of vampiric knowledge, and local hottie Chris (Mason Beauchamp) to uncover a long-simmering plot about to boil over and stop the killing before their family and friends become the next victims.

At a sleek 87 minutes, there’s enough plot in Black as Night to carry it through to the end and good acting to make it worth your time.  I liked that there was some method to the vampiric madness, even if the deeper depths of the reasoning felt like grasping at something greater that never quite got to the point.  Even so, the attempt to at least try for purpose makes it noteworthy.  It wouldn’t go down nearly as well without Cooper’s strong performance in the lead or the solid supporting work from the core players.  The fringe actors may need a little jolt to wake them up at times but when everyone is alert and on the same page there’s a crackling energy going on that’s hard to ignore. Don’t put a stake through this one until you’ve given it a shot.

31 Days to Scare ~ Welcome to the Blumhouse – Evil Eye & Nocturne

1

 

It’s Week Two of Welcome to the Blumhouse, the October collaboration between Blumhouse Television and Amazon Studios meant to drum up some scares with four curated genre films released over the course of two weeks.  Week One saw the arrival of The Lie and Black Box, both of which I found entertaining and, in the case of Black Box, a film I’d advocate you add to your queue, post haste.  I was expecting another week of sturdy films that couldn’t quite justify a theatrical release but made sense to appear in this curio of tales presented by producer Jason Blum.  Heck, I even expected them to save the best for the second week…but sadly these aren’t any stronger than the first entries, though one highly outranks the other in almost every way.  Looking over these four features, I’m glad these two entities joined forces and hope it happens again, albeit with product that feels like it was made for it and not just shoehorned in.  For this first time around, I’d pass on to Welcome to the Blumhouse a qualified return greeting.

The Facts:

Synopsis: A superstitious mother is convinced that her daughter’s new boyfriend is the reincarnation of a man who tried to kill her 30 years ago.

Stars: Sarita Choudhury, Sunita Mani, Omar Maskati, Bernard White, Anjali Bhimani

Director: Elan Dassani and Rajeev Dassani

Rated: NR

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  Okay, so maybe I should walk back my comments above when I said the movies this week weren’t the strongest.  Thinking about it more I did find myself enjoying this low-key (really low-key) thriller based on a popular podcast originating on Audible.  This isn’t the first time a podcast has been adapted for television.  Amazon’s popular Homecoming successfully brought that buzzy paranoid drama to life a year or two ago, but Evil Eye does have an interesting premise and a lead that’s strong enough to earn a recommendation based on that factor alone.  That is winds up feeling like one of those old USA Mystery films by the end is more to do with the glossy direction from Elan Dassani and Rajeev Dassani than anything.

Thirty years ago in India, Usha (Sarita Choudhury, Admission) was attacked by a former boyfriend who she claims put a curse on her unborn baby.  The events of that night will come back to haunt her grown daughter, now single and living in New Orleans on her own.  Superstitious Usha has kept her daughter’s best interest in mind these past years and is always checking up and checking in on her, with her latest quest to find her daughter the proper Indian husband.  Matchmaking from halfway around the world isn’t easy on the mother-daughter relationship but Pallavi (Sunita Mani, The Death of Dick Long) lucks out and meets a keeper on her own, the darkly handsome Sandeep (Omar Maskati).  The one drawback is that though they are moving quickly, Usha’s senses tell her something is off about the match and even though the signs and mystics she normally consults tell her otherwise, she’s convinced her daughter is in danger.  Eventually, she becomes convinced that not only is Sandeep not the right man for her only child, but he’s actually the reincarnation of the man who tried to kill them both years earlier.

I haven’t heard Madhuri Shekar’s podcast so can’t tell you how faithfully she’s adapted it for the screen but this is a premise that works on a higher level than you’d think.  Silly though it sounds, it’s one that has to be taken with a degree of sincerity for it to work and everyone is onboard with that approach.  Steeped in Hindu culture with their own belief in reincarnation and their theory of the spirit never dying, there’s validity to Usha’s feelings even if no one around her actually believes what she says is true.  We don’t even know either, though it wouldn’t be much a thriller without that mystery hanging over our heads for a least a little bit.  The main suspense is due to how long we wait for Usha to get that one true sign that Sandeep is the man from her past, come back to finish what he started.

What gives the film its surest sense of worth is Choudhury’s lightening rod performance, first as the typical meddling mother and then as the parent, unraveling at the fact that she is too far away to save her daughter from an evil she may have unleashed.  Most of the film, Usha and Pallavi are separated and communicate only by phone yet Choudhury and Mani capably develop their relationship above simple surface level conversations.  As has been the case with many of these films, the supporting cast is tiny but I found myself liking Bernard White (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) as Usha’s husband and Pallavi’s dad…the one who is often stuck in the middle between the women he holds close to his heart.  I only wish Maskati had been a more convincing maybe-villain…he lacks a command of the screen and there are times when he’s working hard to come across imperious but winds up robotic.

As for thrills, Evil Eye is fairly light on any, though there was one moment involving the purposeful reveal of a pair of earrings and the direct fallout after that gave me chills.  It’s the one moment in the film that feels like it sprang from something more sinister and supernatural and I wish there were more of them.  Ultimately, this plays like a family drama with traces of the mystical intertwined which feels like a missed opportunity.  All that aside, it’s well-made and short enough to not overstay its welcome.  Choudhury’ll never bore you and she’s in the majority of the film so that’s a plus right there.  Let’s just say, you won’t give it the stink eye….unlike the next film.

 

The Facts:

Synopsis: A teenage pianist makes a devilish deal in a bid to outplay her fraternal twin sister at a prestigious institution for classical musicians.

Stars: Madison Iseman, Sydney Sweeney, Brandon Keener, John Rothman, Rodney To, Jacques Colimon, Asia Jackson

Director: Zu Quirke

Rated: NR

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: Oh boy, a good plot synopsis will trick me every time.  I mean, every time.  Out of all the films in the Welcome to the Blumhouse stable, the one for Nocturne sounded the most interesting to me, which is why I saved it for last.  There’s something wickedly voyeuristic to any film or program where you have artists competing against one another who have already scarified so much and are willing to go a step further (see Suspiria and its remake) to attain their goals.  Now, recently Netflix had their own classical music horror show with twisted musicians in The Perfection and I was curious to see if Nocturne would measure up with the same level of bizarre developments and truly boffo ending.  Unfortunately, Nocturne has a totally different movie in mind to emulate and can’t even commit fully to that either.

Fraternal twins Violet (Madison Iseman, Annabelle Comes Home) and Juliet (Sydney Sweeney, Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood) are senior pianists attending a celebrated private music institute that has trained some of the best talent in the country.  Raised by their airy parents who seem to want their kids to succeed even if it means they step over each other while doing it, Violet is the one that has landed a spot next year at Julliard while Juliet didn’t measure up and now is facing the next year with no back-up plan.  In Juliet’s eyes, everything seems to come easy for Violet.  She’s the one with the boyfriend, the friends, the opportunities, and the sister the teachers appear to favor.  Or maybe she just doesn’t take it all so seriously.  Either way, Juliet wants what Violet has.

When a classmate dies under suspicious circumstances, it leaves an opening for a replacement to take her place in a pivotal piece at the culmination of the year.  Everyone knows that Violet will get it…but Juliet wants it.  By chance, she discovers the notebook of the dead girl and in it finds a strange link to the occult and through it finds a power that may unlock the key to finally rising to the top.  Each turn of the page leads to a new opportunity to move her forward at the expense of something in return.  What price will she pay to be seen for once as the better twin and who will suffer for it the higher she climbs?

In 2010, I was all about Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s truly unforgettable Best Picture nominee which won Natalie Portman as Best Actress Oscar for her chilling take on a ballerina that becomes obsessed with playing the lead in a production of Swan Lake after paying her dues in second place.  The more her obsession grows, the more her psyche and body morph into the character she is portraying onstage, leading to a haunting one performance only showstopper that sees her achieve her dream for a brief shining moment.  Nocturne is such a direct copy of that Black Swan mold it could almost have been labeled a sequel in some way.  It has the same chilly tone, color scheme, music, dreams that turn to nightmares and then back to reality…it’s just all the same but done at a watered down level and totally toothless.

Writer/director Zu Quirke never truly makes the argument for Juliet to be worthy of the kind of attention she craves.  At least in Black Swan we get the idea that Portman’s character was maybe unjustly overlooked.  Juliet seems to want the spotlight just because her sister has it and makes deliberate steps to unseat her because she’s selfish…and that doesn’t make for a compelling watch.  Obsession of this sort should come from neglect, not from petty sister squabbles.  The mythology behind the magic also is a bit of a head-scratcher, with it making precious little sense and failing to be captivating – at the end they just feel like pages in a book.

I thought I was saving the best for last but Nocturne turned out to be the worst of the bunch.  Even its finale is bungled, lingering long enough to come off as a joke instead of a shock.  A better editor would have cut that final shot down and left the audience with their heart in their throat.  There is great deal of discussion about how classical music is a dying form and one character argues for it’s necessity…but not when it’s the driving force behind poorly recycled plots like this.

 

31 Days to Scare ~ Welcome to the Blumhouse – The Lie & Black Box

2

 

You’ve got to hand it to über-producer Jason Blum and his Blumhouse production company for creating a mini horror empire that is able to take a lot of lickings and keep on ticking.  Not unlike Michael Meyers, whom Blum had a hand in resurrecting in 2018 for a wildly popular and critically applauded continuation of Halloween, Blumhouse has taken its fair share of beatings by angry mobs but gets in a few nice stabs every now and then.  For every Fantasy Island there’s a The Invisible Man and while I thought a a female-helmed remake of Black Christmas was agreeably different, a bunch of horror fans (i.e. middle-aged men) disagreed.

With their planned sequel for Halloween as well as an intriguing new take on Candyman getting pushed out a whole year, other theatrically intended projects have either been delayed or moved to streaming like You Should Have Left (I’m also looking forward to Run Sweetheart Run, acquired by Amazon for a TBD release).  So Blumhouse has gotten creative with our at-home trappings and found an interesting way to ring in the chilly weather October brings.  Partnering with Amazon to premiere four new streaming films via Prime Video as part of their Welcome to the Blumhouse project, the first two movies showed up this week and fans were treated to a virtual premiere which could be enhanced by a mystery to solve after the film was over, depending on your level of desired interaction.

I thought the design of the premiere was fun and the puzzle to solve seemed to create engagement but I was here for the movies and was so curious to see if these titles were going to be also-rans Blumhouse was cleverly trying to get rid of or if they were quality that fit the theme.  With two down and two to go, I’d say Blumhouse has nicely curated their content for this platform and the audience which has come to watch – I don’t think either title would play particular well in the theaters but for a evening of entertainment, both films deliver.

 


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Suburban parents fall into a web of lies and deceit when they try to cover up their teenage daughter’s horrific crime.

Stars: Mireille Enos, Peter Sarsgaard, Joey King, Patti Kim, Cas Anvar, Devery Jacobs, Nicholas Lea

Director: Veena Sud

Rated: R

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  The first movie in my line-up is actually the oldest one of the group.  Premiering a full two years ago at the Toronto International Film Festival, The Lie has sat on the virtual shelf until now and while it isn’t exactly the kind of tone or temperament that comes to mind when you think of Blumhouse, it has a chill to it that makes it a nice addition to this group of films.   Based on a 2015 German film and adapted by director Veena Sud, it treads similar territory to Sud’s other translation of a foreign property for American audiences, the the popular crime drama The Killing.  Featuring the star of that show, Mireille Enos (World War Z), and Peter Sarsgaard (The Sound of Silence) as parents of a teenage girl (Joey King, The Conjuring) who commits an unexpected crime, there’s a high sophistication from all involved which helps elevate The Lie from being the NBC Movie of the Week-esqe parental drama it is at the core.

Most of the time, it’s a detriment to have characters that you don’t much care for but it works wonders for keeping The Lie afloat for as long as it does.  King is such a willful, spoiled brat (something her parents are all too aware of) that even after she does what she does and fully admits to it, you are begging for her to get caught.  Each time her act is covered up, first from Enos by Sarsgaard and eventually from neighbors, friends, and the police by both parents, you wonder why they’re actively protecting someone that is so awful.  She must get it from her dad’s side of the family, though, because Sarsgaard’s character seems to have some moral quandaries of his own going on.  Taking the stance of “It’s our daughter, we must protect her” against his ex-wife’s protests of turning her over to the police and letting them sort it out, he only makes things worse at every juncture and his lies force the family into increasingly dangerous situations.

The strongest reason to see the film is for the razor sharp performance of Enos.  Beginning the film an icy parental figure used to daily routine and mothering by enforcement of rules (she’s a former cop turned lawyer, after all), her gradual breakdown into a person that could betray the law she’s sworn to uphold startles her and us at the same time.  For all his bluster, Sarsgaard is a good match for Enos as well and you can tell why they work better as divorcees than as a couple.  King is two years older now than she was when she filmed this and she’s improved in that time, considering as well it’s a tough character play because you aren’t rooting for her in the slightest.  Of the small supporting cast, I greatly enjoyed Patti Kim as a former police colleague of Enos that she first turns to for help…until she realizes she’s gone to the one person that really is looking to solve the mystery that surrounds them all.

The final fifteen minutes of The Lie have some turns that I didn’t see coming and kudos to everyone for distracting me long enough to let my guard down.  This is a small film but it has an impact that resonates more than I had originally thought it would.  The performances are strong and while the plot may seem simple at first, it sits on top of something a lot more thorny.

 

The Facts:

Synopsis: After losing his wife and his memory in a car accident, a single father undergoes an agonizing experimental treatment that causes him to question who he really is.

Stars: Mamoudou Athie, Phylicia Rashad, Amanda Christine, Tosin Morohunfola, Charmaine Bingwa, Donald Watkins, Troy James

Director: Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour

Rated: NR

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: We all can agree that 2020 has bit the big one, right?  Well, I think we can also try to find the positives along the way and one thing I’ve noticed is that this year has been a great one for horror/suspense films to find exciting new (or new-ish) voices that are getting some nice exposure because their smaller films are able to be noticed.  If we were only talking about big blockbusters and focused solely on the money makers, we’d be neglecting to give accolades to so many worthy films. Let’s remember Natalie Erika James for the creepy multi-layers found in Relic, the keen ear for creating character amidst nail-gnawing gore from Egor Abramenko in Sputnik, or the way Lane and Ruckus Skye make the retro themes in The Devil to Pay feel fresh.

You can add writer/director Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour to that list of names to watch out for because if his first feature Black Box is any indication, this is a filmmaker who has hit the ground running.  You can easily see why Blumhouse Television snapped this one up and featured it in the inaugural slate of Welcome to the Blumhouse pictures; it’s a perfect blend of spooky horror and mind-bending mystery wrapped up in a surprisingly emotional family drama.  I was expecting it to get my pulse racing but wasn’t thinking it would make me get all misty-eyed, either.

Months after a terrible car accident robbed him of his wife and left him with amnesia, Nolan Wright (Mamoudou Athie, Underwater) still needs help remembering the name of his former boss and the way to his daughter’s school, not to mention the proper way to do their secret handshake.  Though still a small child, Ava (Amanda Christine, Miss Virginia) has taken on a lot of the household responsibilities for her father who often forgets to pick her up and cook dinner.  He’s convinced by his physician best friend (Tosin Morohunfola) to take part in an experimental study offered by Dr. Lillian Brooks (Phylicia Rashad, Creed) who specializes in memory loss for patients with brain trauma.

Pioneering a new technology with her “black box”, she works with Nolan in one on one sessions to bring him back to previous memories as a way to restore the part of his mind that was damaged in the crash.  At first, the treatment seems to yield positive results, with Nolan remembering his wedding day and seeing his newborn daughter.  Yet there is an unpleasant quality to these visions: everyone he sees has a blurred face so he can’t identify anyone.  Worse, each time their faces begin to come into focus, another figure enters the remembrance…a quadruple jointed, backwards-walking, bone crunching, evil entity that is coming after him.  Dr. Brooks dismisses this as the part of his mind that feels threatened but as the presence grows more intense, Nolan grows more convinced the treatment may be doing more harm than good…and that these memories may not be his after all.

Osei-Kuffour and his co-writer Stephen Herman have worked out a fairly clever plot that keeps viewers engaged for most of the run time.  What’s really happening to Nolan and how it is related to the treatment is something experienced viewers may guess at but it’s not as simple an explanation as you may think.  I was impressed that for a film relying on high-tech medical gadgetry to sell us on the premise, it acquits itself easily by keeping things as unpretentious as possible.  It also helps immensely to have Rashad explaining things because when she’s selling it, you buy it.

That’s true for all of the performances actually; everyone is so convincing that even when things start to go slightly awry in the latter half it doesn’t feel like the movie has lost any points overall because everyone has been cast so well.  Athie is excellent in the lead, totally convincing as a man who lost everything trying to put his life back together and hold down what he has left for his daughter.  It’s so wonderful to see Rashad in this type of role that has more than just one-note to play and Charmaine Bingwa and Morohunfola are strong in their supporting roles.  The real star is Christine as Nolan’s daughter – what a strong performance by such a young actress!  There’s a scene close to the end that almost breaks your heart and it’s her convincing acting that makes it so believable.

I found Black Box to be an exciting watch, one that kept me comfortably leaning forward in my seat and wanting to know more.  It only dips in energy as it reveals more of its secrets but bounces back with an well-earned resolution and nicely done finale that isn’t your standard “gotcha” moment.  Check this one out and don’t be surprised to see a number of these actors and the director show up in more projects on the horizon.